Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Campos Basin Oil Spill, Brazil - Slicks Dissipating?

Envisat ASAR image of Campos Basin taken November 22, 2011. Surface winds too strong to reliably detect thin oil slicks. Bright spots are vessels and oil platforms. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Today's Envisat ASAR satellite radar image of the Campos Basin, covering the location of the Chevron / Transocean oil spill, shows no sign of an oil slick. It was taken at about 9:30 am local time.

However, the wind speed was fairly strong in the area at the time. According to the satellite scatterometer data collected by the ASCAT system, surface winds were blowing at 15-25 knots (8-13 meters per second). This is strong enough to overwhelm very thin oil slicks (the optimum wind speed for detecting slicks on radar images is about 3 - 10 meters per second):

Surface wind speed and direction derived from ASCAT scatterometer data at nearly the same time as the November 22 radar satellite overpass.

So it is possible that very thin oil slicks remain in the area, but it is encouraging that we don't see signs of thick oil... (more text and images after the break)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Aerial Photo and Video from the Campos Basin Oil Spill, Brazil

Aerial view of oil spill in the Frade Field, Campos Basin, Brazil, on November 18, 2011. In the background is the Transocean semisubmersible drill rig operated for Chevron. Photo copyright Marcia Foletto/Agencia O Globo - All rights reserved.

While we're still waiting on clear satellite imagery from the area (and radar imagery, coming next week), the aerial photograph above was taken during an overflight on the morning of November 18 off the Campos Basin along the coast of Brazil. According to Chevron and Brazilian authorities, the well is now sealed.

BBC News also has a short video clip showing aerial footage of the spill and the vessels in the area trying to clean up the mess. Brazil's oil agency, ANP, said underwater images showed Chevron's effort to permanently seal the well with cement appeared to have been successful, although there appeared to be a residual flow of oil from the seabed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Brazil Oil Spill - Well Plugged, Leaks Abating

We are still waiting to get more good satellite imagery of the Chevron / Transocean oil spill in the Campos Basin - it's been cloud-covered since our last image on November 12, so we've been unable to provide any new information.

But we are happy to pass along that Brazilian authorities report the well was plugged yesterday with cement, and the leakage from nearby points on the seafloor is greatly diminished. We expect to see a much smaller oil slick, if any, when we get another good satellite image of the area.

Brazilian Federal Police have launched an investigation into the causes and size of the spill. We hope all of this information becomes public: deepwater drilling is a global business and these were two of the biggest global players, so lessons learned from this incident will apply here in the U.S. too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brazil Oil Spill Update

The Campos Basin has been cloudy so we haven't gotten a good satellite image of the Chevron oil spill there since November 12. Chevron reported yesterday that their top-kill operation has stopped the flow of oil at a well they had been drilling from the Transocean SEDCO 706 semisubmersible drill rig, and "significantly reduced" the flow from from a line of nearby seeps that may have been fed by oil from the well.

It seems like they may have had a casing failure below the seafloor, but we need to see a lot more technical detail about what happened. Chevron and Transocean are major global players, very active in US waters, so whatever went wrong off Brazil is important information relevant to deepwater drilling everywhere.

Let's not make the mistake of dismissing this spill as irrelevant to US drilling practices, like we did after the 10-week-long blowout and oil spill off Australia in 2009. These incidents are warning shots that we ignore at our peril.

We'll keep looking for good satellite imagery of this spill - hopefully showing the oil slick dissipating - and will update you all here and at SkyTruth Alerts whenever we produce anything new.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chevron Oil Spill off Brazil - 10 Times Bigger Than Official Estimate?

We've been tracking the oil spill reported off Brazil a few days ago, in the Frade field operated by Chevron in the Campos Basin, Brazil's most productive area of offshore production, and a place where many deepwater technology milestones have been made for offshore oil production.  Chevron claimed the oil slick was being caused by a natural oil seep on the seafloor, but they suspended drilling on a well in the field.  Brazilian authorities quickly disputed that a natural seep was the cause.  And yesterday Chevron admitted the possibility that something went wrong at their drillsite.  According to today's news release from Brazilian authorities, Chevron is trying to kill the well - indicating a loss of well control and blowout. 18 response vessels are on the scene, and Chevron reports the well is leaking about 8,400 - 13,860 gallons  (200 -330 barrels) per day.

MODIS/Aqua satellite image shows growing oil slick in the deepwater Campos Basin off Brazil.  Image taken around midday on November 12, 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The News is Hopeful off the New Zealand Coast

Containers on the stern deck of the 47,230 tonne Liberian-flagged Rena hang precariously, about 12 nautical miles (22 km) from Tauranga, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. Photo courtesy of SeaNews.com.
Good news from the salvors who have been working to pump all of the remaining oil off of the Rena, the 47,000-ton vessel that ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the Bay of Plenty coast on October 5, spilling about 110,000 gallons (350 tonnes) of fuel oil and a bunch of its containers into the sea. According to TVNZ's website, almost 2/3 of the remaining oil has been pumped out of the last tank on the ship. Officials report that less than 63,000 gallons (200 tonnes) of oil are still in that last tank and the best news for those working to pump out the oil is that the weather is expected to remain clear for the remainder of this process.

Even MORE good news, they plan to begin the process of getting all of the containers moved off the ship as early as next week (again, weather permitting). Currently there are 466 containers on the ship's deck and another 814 secured below deck. Some of these containers hold toxic materials, so we hope they get them offloaded safely.

Rena's running aground on the Astrolabe Reef is considered to be New Zealand's worst environmental maritime disaster. According to NZHerald.com, up to 20,000 birds were killed in the disaster.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Oil Spill (Natural Seep??) off Brazil - 56 Miles Long Today

Today's MERIS satellite image (courtesy of the European Space Agency) shows an apparent slick that's now about 56 miles long off the coast of Brazil in the Campos Basin:
MERIS satellite image showing slick in Campos Basin off Brazil, November 11, 2011. Image courtesy European Space Agency.
As in the MODIS images shot two days ago, this slick appears to be continuously emanating from a point source at the north end. Today Chevron claimed it was being caused by a natural oil seep, not any leak or problem associated with the offshore field that they operate. 

It is possible, but call us skeptical.  From my previous years working as an exploration geologist I know there are natural seeps off Brazil (that was a study I did for BP back in the day...). But I've never seen a natural seep create a slick this large on a satellite image.

One way to verify if it's a natural seep: go back and look at historical satellite images for this area, and if it doesn't show up then either it's a brand-new natural seep or it's a human-caused slick.  We're doing that right now.  We'll let you know what we find.

"Fracking Pit" Spill Reported near Salem, West Virginia

Yesterday we received this report from our SkyTruth Alerts System about a spill of "fracking fluid" from a pit located about a mile and a half to the north east of Salem, WV in Harrison county.  Note that we placed the original report in the town of Salem because we had to approximate the location since no specific latitude and longitude were given in the report.  The actual location according to gas drilling permit data from the West Virginia DEP appears to be about a mile up Cherry Camp Run heading north from Rt. 50:

Approximate location of recent report of "fracking fluid" spill near Salem, WV

Here's what we know:

The operator of the site is Antero Resources Bluestone, LLC which sits on property reportedly owned by Mary Post and Robert Haught. Several drilling permits on this property were issued over the past few years, and several permits were issued and then canceled. The most recent permit we see in the WV Permit Data site is API number 033-05540 which was approved on 4/19/2011. The prior permits for this farm were signed by Hall Drilling. So far, we haven't found any actual 'permit commenced' filing for any permit issued on this property (we believe that a "permit commenced" filing indicates the start of drilling activity). In the most recent permit, the current operator is listed as Antero Resources Bluestone LLC.   A little online research reveals that Bluestone LLC was acquired by Antero Resources last December. According to that press release: "Sam Ross, Mike Hall and the Bluestone team have created quite a valuable asset in the play and we congratulate them on their success." In the WV Permit Data search, we found that Michael Hall was the contact person for Hall Drilling, LLC. So we conclude that Hall became Bluestone LLC, and was then taken over by Antero Resources.

We did a little more digging and found this Youtube video which was uploaded on March 6, 2011 and appears to show the same site:

Then we found another Youtube clip, uploaded just two months later on May 21, 2011 showing what appears to be the same drilling site and including the API number of the most recent permit for that site, which is probably posted on a sign near the road:

We'll let the videos speak for themselves, and only point out that the surface of the water is awfully close to the top of the berm and there is not much clearance there to prevent the contents of the pond from overflowing into the creek.  We have no idea what's in the pond though, and no way to verify that these videos do indeed show the same location as the NRC report.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Oil Spill off Brazil Seen On Satellite Images

We don't have much information on this yet but Chevron is reporting an oil spill in their Frade field in the Campos Basin off Brazil.  Two MODIS satellite images from NASA, taken yesterday, show an apparent oil slick about 35 miles long and covering about 180 square kilometers, 80 miles offshore due east of the city of Campos. Assuming this slick is only one micron (1/1000th of a millimeter) thick, then it represents about 47,000 gallons.

This Terra image, shot at about 1 pm local time on November 9, has a sunglint pattern over the area that reveals the slick as a bright streak. At first we just thought it was a bank of clouds until we noticed it didn't cast any shadow, like the other clouds in the area:

November 9, 2011 MODIS/Terra image of oil slick off Campos, Brazil. Image courtesy NASA/Rapid Response Team.

And this Aqua image taken a couple of hours later clinched it as a slick: the sun angle has changed enough so the sunglint pattern has moved, and the slick now appears mostly dark.  It's in the same place, but the clouds have all changed dramatically compared with the Aqua image:

November 9, 2011 MODIS/Aqua image of oil slick off Campos, Brazil. Image courtesy NASA/Rapid Response Team.
 The slick seems to be originating from a continuous point source of leakage at its north end.  It also looks thicker at the north end, as you'd expect - it's brighter there on the MODIS/Aqua image suggesting the slick is thick enough to have its own distinct spectral response, not just a sunglint signature.  We hope they get the source of this under control soon. 

Fire Reported in Gulf of Mexico - Part Deux?

Location of fires in the Gulf recently reported to the National Response Center in the general vicinity of the Na Kika deepwater development project operated by BP and Shell. Platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are orange lines. Location of Deepwater Horizon wreckage shown for reference.
Once again an airline pilot (or observant passenger) has reported seeing a fire in the Gulf of Mexico.  This was reported to the National Response Center at about 8:19 pm on November 6, at a location in the deepwater Gulf about 12 miles southeast of the site of last year's BP oil spill.  It's also about 11 miles north of a fire reported on September 26 that we covered in this blog.

Both reports are in the general vicinity of the Na Kika offshore development project operated by BP and Shell.

We think these observers may be seeing flaring of natural gas during drilling operations.  We're not sure what, if any, drilling activity is occurring here right now (if you know, please let us know!). If they are flaring "commercial quantities" of natural gas, that could be illegal - Shell got busted for doing this a few years back in the Gulf at their deepwater Auger platform about 140 miles offshore, and got fined to the tune of $49 million by the US government.

We don't know if that's what is happening here.  But we wonder if anyone at BOEMRE is paying attention to this.

Unreported Leak / Discharge from Oil Platform Off Louisiana Coast - May 7, 2011

Thought you all would like to (finally) see photos taken during the very first official action of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium back in May of this year. SouthWings pilot Dan Luke flew along the Gulf coast to investigate possible leaks from oil and gas infrastructure in western Louisiana, from Vermilion Bay to Sabine Pass.  About 37 miles east of Grand Chenier, passenger Jamie Ward took a series of photos showing an apparent discharge of oily material from a platform about a mile offshore:
Gulf Monitoring Consortium photo taken May 7, 2011 showing apparent discharge from an oil platform in state waters along the Louisiana coast.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alberta Tar Sands - It's Not Just About the Mining

As controversy over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline builds, Alberta's vast oil sand reserves have become the target of much speculation and review. Last week SkyTruth published maps and images revealing the extent of surface mining operations and their visible impact on Alberta's environment (see "Oil from Sand? You Better Believe It" and  "Tar Sands Mining..." blogs).

The surface mining extent is startling enough in scope, but surface mining is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the vast majority of oil sands wealth - 80% to be exact - lies farther below the surface. These deeper reserves will most likely be extracted through in-situ or "on site" methods, like Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), where steam is injected into the ground to liquefy the bitumen for easier retrieval.

(maps and images after the jump) 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tar Sands Mining: Well, Canada is sorta big right?

It is one thing to say that the Athabasca tar sands mining project is a behemoth- quite another to actually see it. Here at SkyTruth we have always recognized how powerful a story real-world images can tell.

Check out our newest addition of satellite "truthing" - A quick animation of the growing Athabasca tar sands mining "footprint" and future extent.
Big tip o' the hat to Global Forest Watch Canada for providing the mining data.

We have placed the boundary of Washington, DC on top of one of the open-pit mine locations to give viewers a sense of just how vast this whole operation is. Have any of you ambitious tourists ever attempted to walk the length of the National Mall from the U.S. Capital to the Lincoln Memorial?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Oil from sand? You better believe it.

Question: From which country does the United States receive the majority of it's oil?

Answer: Canada! Not Saudi Arabia. Not Angola. Not Kuwait. Canada. 

You would be very surprised by how few people know this crucial fact. Or maybe not that surprised, depending on how you answered the above question. 

Fact is Alberta's bituminous tar sands have rapidly become a burgeoning force in our oil-driven world. The oil itself is retrieved through "unconventional" methods, as the sands are mined and refined through various processes to extract bitumen and turn it into petroleum. Controversy is raging right now over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring much more oil from Alberta's tar sands across the US to refineries on the Gulf Coast - possibly for export to Mexico, Central America and other markets. The U.S. recently began exporting more petroleum than we import.

Alberta has experienced a economic boom in only a few short years, shepherding job creation and wealth into the province. However, environmental protests against domestic tar sands expansion and subsequent impacts on local wildlife and the Athabasca River are gaining force. Although industry players draw support through proclamations that tar sands are more "ethical" compared to oil from the Middle East or Africa, carbon emissions from extraction and refining pose significant climate threats to all of us.

Regardless of the politics, the actual mining imprint on Alberta's landscape is impossible to fudge, and getting harder to ignore. See SkyTruth's Flickr page for satellite images of the Athabasca mines. 

Above: An animation of Alberta's tar sands growth, including refining stations, open pit mines and tailing ponds.

Below: 1974-2009 mined extent and area approved for tar sands mining. Washington, DC shown for scale. Mine-extent data provided by Global Forest Watch Canada.

Believe it or not, these SkyTruth maps only show part of the impact of tar sands development - the area where surface mining is the preferred technique.  A much larger area surrounding this has been targeted for  "in-situ" exploitation, where steam is generated (by burning natural gas) and pumped into the ground, heating up the buried tar sands deposits until bitumen is liquified and can be pumped to the surface for processing. Here's the landscape footprint of the in-situ process:

Infrastructure footprint of in-situ extraction of bitumen using the steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technique near Cold Lake, Alberta. Each bright rectangular patch is a cleared area about 6-7 acres in size where horizontal wells are drilled to inject steam and extract the bitumen for processing. Drilling sites are spaced about 0.2 - 0.5 miles apart.

U.S. National Forests No Match for Drilling Boom

As part of SkyTruth's ongoing analysis of gas and oil drilling in Pennsylvania (see HotSpot Map blog and Abandoned Wells blog) we've begun exploring the effects of the Marcellus play on national and state forests.

This issue has been of concern to environmentalists and residents alike for several years. In 2009 the U.S. Forest Service was sued by conservation groups for allowing gas drilling to continue without the completion of environmental site assessments of potential drilling effects. The case was ruled in favor of such assessments, but drilling companies and private mineral owners with stakes in the Allegheny were quick to appeal. In September, 2011 the settlement requiring environmental site assessments before drilling can begin was overturned, thus opening up the national forest for new gas and oil drilling, including horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The map below illustrates drilling in Allegheny National Forest from January 2005 - October 2011:
3,845 oil and gas wells drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005

Nearly 4,000 oil and gas wells were drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005.  Only 15 of those are Marcellus Shale wells, and all of them were drilled since 2009. As the concern about natural gas drilling in U.S. National Forests spreads, SkyTruth intends to continue monitoring the number of permits received by the PA DEP Bureau of Oil and Gas Management to see if this ruling will bring increased drilling activity in the area as expected. 

Friday Night Appearances!

If you're in the Shepherdstown, WV area this Friday evening November 4, come on out to the Shepherdstown Opera House for a screening of the film The Big Fix, 'a comprehensive investigation into the massive BP Deepwater/Horizon spill in the Gulf which digs deeper to reveal a darker more unsettling truth about the world we live in today. By exposing the root causes of the spill, filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell uncover a vast network of corruption that not only caused one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of all time but may also lead to something that could be even more damaging to life as we know it; an inevitable global currency collapse.'

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with none other than our own SkyTruth president, John Amos, as well as Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post.  Joel is also author of a riveting book about the spill, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, if you DO come out to the Opera House, don't forget to set your DVR's and Tivo's for the SkyTruth interview with West Virginia's PBS. Our segment will be shown on Friday night's episode of This Week In West Virginia, which will be airing at 8:00 p.m. If you miss that airing, don't fret! Another airing will be shown on Sunday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m.